In today’s loss to Pittsburgh, Starlin Castro had two hits and Anthony Rizzo wore the collar again. That’s not really too different from the last week or so, where neither has been setting the world on fire. In Starlin’s case, he’s been less productive all season than he has in his first three. Anthony Rizzo has been as streaky as it gets. He ended a 40 PA streak without a strike out with a flurry of them coming in the last four ballgames. Ultimately, both have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Starlin Castro is not as protected as he was when he was called up three years ago. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are not in the line up to protect him anymore, and it has shown since the beginning of 2012. Anthony Rizzo never got the luxury of being in the line up with Ramirez or Lee, and has been the man since last June when he was called up. At least Alfonso Soriano was swinging the bat when he got the call. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all, and Rizzo has also done some uncharacteristic swinging and missing, in an obvious effort to carry the offense.
Dale Sveum has shown up as the scapegoat for this season. It isn’t a surprise that Dale is the one being chased with torches and pitchforks. After all, he is the one who is hanging sliders late in games. And it is Sveum who is swinging at pitches a foot off the plate with runners in scoring position. It would be unimaginable to forget all of the errors in the field he’s committed, as well. Actually, I’m being told that he hasn’t done any of those things thus far. While he (and every other manager/ head coach in professional sports) has done some things that may not seem to be the right move, or clearly haven’t been the right move, it is absurd to blame him for the failures of the bullpen this season. He could not have known, before the season, that Carlos Marmol was going to be as bad as he was out of the gates after as good as he was in the second half of last season. He could not have known Kyuji Fujikawa would have a forearm injury and not tell anyone about it. The same applies to the Shawn Camp fiasco that happened earlier this week. While it is fair to question some of the moves Dale has made in some situations, to pick him apart and blame him for the failures of the team would be a disservice, especially since he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the development that he has overseen. The Cubs were the worst defensive team in baseball in 2011. They are much better now (spare me the errors, crap. Those are 100% subjective. Peripherals say the Cubs are much better than they were in 2011). They are much better base runners. They make some silly plays on the bases now, but they are errors or aggression, and not errors of not knowing what’s going on. All of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija have grown in the time Sveum has been around. Darwin Barney won a Gold Freaking Glove. Matt Garza stayed with a 61 win team after being shut down in July because of the atmosphere of the clubhouse when a lot of players go home to rehab. That speaks volumes to Dale Sveum’s ability to manage a clubhouse and a ball club. He should get the credit he deserves if he is going to get the unfair criticisms of being the reason a team with a talent deficiency is 10 under .500.
All of that leads me to this…when do the fans start looking in the mirror and blaming themselves? The obvious answer is never. Because nobody wants to think they’re the reason for anything. We as a fan base, collectively, have a lot more effect on things than we might think. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are two very rich players who fans are always talking about being the future of the team and the cornerstones of a team that lead the Cubs fans to the promised land. That’s a heavy burden on two kids. Because they are kids. 23 years old is young if they were starting in Iowa. They are both starting every day at Wrigley Field. While I am not tremendously older than either of those two, I do know that I have undergone a major transformation in the years since I was 23. That’s just out of college for most people. These two are being counted on to win a World Series where one hasn’t been won in 105 years! Are they feeling the pressure of expectations levied on them by media and fans? I can’t answer for sure, but I would venture to guess the obvious answer is yes. It shows in their performance. They are both trying to make things happen when nothing is there to be made…and it is hurting them and the team. Matt Garza has already addressed the negativity around the team this season from the fans. Since he’s still new to the whole Cubs atmosphere, he must not realize the negativity has been going on for a long time. Dale Sveum isn’t the first “moron,” “idiot,” “over-thinker,” or “washed up player” to come through here and be run out of town by the fans. It happened to Mike Quade, Dusty Baker, and Don Baylor…all in the last 12 years. It probably would have happened to Lou Piniella, too, but he got the hell out of town before he could be chased down Sheffield Avenue by an angry mob. All of the things that I love about being a Cubs fan…the passion, the loyalty, the undying desire to see the Cubs win it all…have to make being on a team that doesn’t win it all an unmitigated hell. We’re the people who booed Carlos Marmol before the home opener this season. We’re the people who booed Alfonso Soriano unmercifully for not running out a line drive that was caught at third base on national television. We’re the people who, inexplicable, found some cause to boo Aramis Ramirez when he made his first visit to Wrigley last season as a member of the Brewers.
And for what? Because every year has to be THE YEAR? I’ve said it before, other bloggers have said it before, and the front office and manager have said it before if you listened closely to what they’ve said…this is not the year. This is another completely developmental year. Theo, and I paraphrase, said it’s either playoffs or protected pick. And if you hooked him up to a polygraph, he’d probably tell you playoffs were never really an option. He’s smart. He knows who is on the line up card Dale fills out everyday. It’s not a playoff team.
I’m not saying to applaud mediocrity. I’m not saying to ignore mistakes and to not boo a lack of effort. I’m saying that we aren’t helping. The players that are running out there everyday feel the weight of a fan base pushing down on their shoulders. And there are only a few who are out there everyday. Castro. Rizzo. Barney. Those are the ones who will have the best chance of being a part of the team that does win it all. Crushing them now is just counterproductive.
There is no denying that it’s been tough to watch at times in the early going. The errors, the lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, the lack of patience at the plate, the base running blunders…it’s all been quite frustrating. There is a bright side, though. It can’t get any worse.
In my Central Division Preview, I called the Cubs an 80 win team. I made my predictions, intentionally early, based on the on-paper roster. It actually looks pretty good right now. *Hold on, meatball…before you call me a moron and tell me to watch the games, you’re right.* But hear me out. The Cubs are losing games, which is to say they are not being beaten by the other teams, but by themselves. We can agree they played well enough to win one against the Braves, two more than they did against the Giants, and probably the first two of this series against the Brewers without the mistakes which have cost them early. There are five wins in there the Cubs don’t have, that they could have. And really, if they win two or three of those five games, nobody’s saying anything about the errors or struggles with runners in scoring position because an 8-8 or a 7-9 record would be acceptable based on what we were expecting this season.
More silver lining: the mistakes are inexcusable. They are not, however, uncorrectable. Change can happen with the defense, especially when the vast majority are effort mistakes. Anthony Rizzo is a very good defensive first baseman, and has made two uncharacteristic plays in the last two nights. Both of them were because he was trying to rush. Friday, on a play against a speedy Nori Aoki, and last night trying to get an out and throw home on a play he wasn’t going to make. Ultimately, the play last night didn’t matter. Sure, he bobbled the ball, but they still got the out at first base, and he wasn’t going to hold Logan Schafer at third anyway. That’s a “no harm, no foul” play. The misplay was not relevant to the outcome of the play. Starlin Castro is our favorite whipping boy, and it probably has a lot to do with his off the charts talent. His issues have not been concentration related, either as much as they’re publicized as. Say what you will about an error with the pitcher running, but that was a physical mistake, not taking his time and making the play. Stop with the garbage “you have to be aware of who’s running” stuff. Last night was no different. Actually, it was the same play. Two outs, and making the play ends the innings and ends the scoring threat.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be disappointed or frustrated or cover our eyes while we watch yet another defeat being snatched out of the jaws of victory. At the end of the day, though, who cares? The front office, and Theo Epstein, in particular make no qualms about “playoffs or protected pick.” He said that they’re going to take the “cold assessment” in the middle of the season. There is no valor in winning 78 vs 73. He’s absolutely right, too. Hell, I’ll take it a step further. When you watch the game today, look across the field at the other dugout. They won 83 last season. Our guys got 61. Everybody finished on the same day. Their fans get to talk about the magical “winning season” and we get mocked for “101 losses.” But in June, the Cubs get a prize. They get Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray. They get a chance at a college arm who can be teamed with Jeff Samardzija for years to come. The Brewers coughed up a first round pick for three years of Kyle Lohse, and with it, stay stuck in mediocrity. They can have their 75-84 wins each year. If the Cubs go down with another 100+ losses this season, that’s alright. *Cue Meatball fan throwing closing the browser window…NOW* It’s not like tthe Cubs have had a difficult time attracting free agents. Edwin Jackson was one of the prizes of last winter’s class, and he came.
The Cubs are in the midst of culture change. A welcome one. Look across the field at the Brewers, again. Now think back to 2011 and what the Cubs were. In 2011, the Cubs didn’t have anybody but Starlin Castro who would actually be improving over the course of the next 4-5 years. Everyone on the roster was either in or past their prime. They won 71 games. It was miserable. It was worse than we have now because it was hopeless. We wanted to think adding Carlos Pena and trading the farm for Matt Garza would be enough to have another magical winning season. We hoped Carlos Zambrano wouldn’t be a complete headcase, and with him, Garza, and Ryan Dempster, there would be a rotation worth running out each day. We had Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall setting up for Carlos Marmol, which turned out to be a decent pen when the Cubs actually led. Aramis Ramirez was still at third and it didn’t look like an endless abyss of suck. The reality of that team, though, is that the only player who played any considerable amount of time with any potential to grow was Starlin Castro. *Meatball, if you’re still with me, I’m talking to you again…yes, Starlin is getting better. No, we shouldn’t trade him unless we get a lot in return, and yes, his defense is above league average.* Now, look at the Brewers. Lucroy is pretty good, but at 26 is probably not going to get much better, if at all. Ryan Braun is in the twilight of his 20s, and is in his prime. Jean Segura is a young and talented player who will improve. But apart from that, who else is there? Their minor league organization is bare, and Aramis Ramirez is two years older than the past his prime Rami we saw a couple of years ago. Corey Hart can’t stay healthy, and is starting to get to the point of decline. Rickie Weeks is a laughable shell of his former self. It all looks very familiar to our situation a couple of years ago.
The point of all of this is that, like Wrigley Field, the product on the field was a real mess a couple of years ago. That’s why Jim Hendry was fired, that’s why Theo Epstein was given the reigns, and that’s why we are where we are. It needed to be done. Like any massive renovation, some things are going to be broken down, some things are going to be ugly and tough to handle, but in the end, the foundation will be stronger and the finished product will look better. If you take anything from this series, take it as progress. Two short years ago, the Cubs may have won some games because a less talented team made some silly mistakes against a team of aging veterans who weren’t going to be better than 71 wins, but wouldn’t beat themselves as often. Honestly, I would rather the Cubs throw the ball around the diamond and beat themselves than get run day after day. That’s not happening. What is happening is a young team learning to play together, and learning to win together. It’s hard to watch. It may result in being swept out of Milwaukee.
We knew what 2013 was coming in. It still is. A bridge to next year.
The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least. When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term. To this point, he has kept his word. The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings. Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect. The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect. He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.
With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:
- PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system. Theo knows it. Jed knows it. Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it. That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching. The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms. They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster. They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings. Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick. We are very close to reaching bust status with him. The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft. Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
- CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth. That’s mostly true. The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up. The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level. That’s some good news. The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
- INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for. Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com. Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon. Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism. He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field. He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up. As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona. They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year. Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow. I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly. An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system. He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise. Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs. He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.” My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
- OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system. After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate. The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system. With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system. For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years. For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).
There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago. That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now. There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare. Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win. It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club. It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up. Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion. Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels. No organization can have too much talent. At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.
In keeping with the theme of looking ahead, one of the interesting players for the Cubs moving forward is going to be 3B Ian Stewart. Acquired from the Rockies, along with AA pitcher Casey Weathers for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, Stewart was the first man given the chance to replace the departed Aramis Ramirez. Stewart’s numbers, in 55 games, were not spectacular, but there is more to the story than plainly looking at the numbers.
Drafted: 1st Round (10th Overall), 2003 by the Colorado Rockies
Debut: 8/11/2007 (0-2, Run)
Cubs Statistical Analysis:
As I said earlier, there is more to the numbers than meets the eye for Ian Stewart. First of all, he played in 55 games, so it is almost unfair to do this. But, in his 55 games, he hit 5 HR and drove in 17. That put him on a pace for 15 HR and 50 RBI in a full 162 game season. What goes largely unnoticed is how much Stewart improved as the season wore on. After hitting .169 in April, he hit .225 and .226 in May and June, respectively. Part of that is how cold and windy it is at Wrigley in April. As the weather got warmer, so did Stewart’s numbers. With a ground ball: fly ball ratio of 2:1, it is fair to say Stewart would have out-performed his 15 HR pace. One prime example is the bottom of the ninth inning on opening day. Ian Stewart absolutely tattooed a baseball into the well in right field. If there was anything short of gale force winds, he hits a game tying home run in the ninth inning on opening day. But there were winds (I promise, I was there in a sweatshirt…it was cold) and he ended up with a hustle triple. Offensively, his numbers were not great, but they were not as terrible as some of the haters have made them out to be. Defensively, he was outstanding. His range factors, fielding percentage, and runs saved numbers were all in the league average area, but some those numbers were all off the pace of his career averages. I can speculate that defensive positioning had something to do with the slight drop in his defensive numbers, but his leather prowess did not go unnoticed by Dale Sveum, who said on more than one pregame show that his glove was keeping him in the line-up, whether there was a lefty starter or not.
Who else do Cubs’ fans know who hit about .225 (what Stewart hit in May/ June, which is a better indicator than his April average), with power from the left side of the plate and an excellent glove at a corner infield position? I’ll give you all a hint: Carlos Pena. And do any of us remember how much we liked Carlos Pena? Of course not…because he’s not a Cub, anymore. Ian Stewart, however, is a very similar player in what he brought to the line-up. He brought a great glove and a workman like attitude, in spite of a wrist injury that absolutely hampers the ability to swing a bat. If healthy, I have no doubt in my mind Stewart can match the 25-30 HR and 80 or so RBI Pena gave the Cubs in 2011.
The BIG Question:
Will Ian Stewart’s wrist heal after surgery enough to make him a productive player, and will be he back with the Cubs next season?
Without trying to read Jed Hoyer’s and Theo Esptein’s minds, I would guess that the two questions are going to be related. Obviously, the Cubs sent a pretty good prospect in Colvin and a player many in the Cubs’ organization thought had a chance to be an everyday 2B in LeMahieu for Stewart, so the price was not cheap at all to get him here. 55 games with a bad wrist is not exactly a good opportunity to gauge what a player can do day in and day out. Should Stewart get the go-ahead to start baseball activities again and gets his swing going again, he is worth at the very least, a look in Spring Training. At best, he could find the swing that made him the 10th pick in the draft nine years ago. To be picked that high, it is apparent that there is some talent in there. Stewart said on Twitter some time ago that was was willing to take $1.5M for next season, which is peanuts in baseball, so he is absolutely worth bringing back, in my mind. Josh Vitters continues to work hard, but he hasn’t exactly grabbed the bull by the horns and locked himself down at the hot corner. Absent a surge by Vitters between now and October 3, there is no good reason not to bring Stewart back. There are no good prospects, other than Vitters, waiting in the wings to come up right away. Free agency does not offer too much of a short term, stop gap player to add for a year or two, and certainly not as inexpensively as Stewart will be. My crystal ball is not always right, but I cannot see why Stewart wouldn’t be back…at least for the spring.
Since the arrival of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, there has been a significant changing of the guard, which started with the trade to acquire 3B Ian Stewart for OF Tyler Colvin and IF DJ LeMahieu. Last night, the Cubs sent three of their veteran players packing, all of whom were rumored to be on the move. Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson are headed to Atlanta, and Geovany Soto is headed to Texas. For those players the rumors end. For the rest, there are still about 13 1/2 hours of uncertainty remaining until the deadline.
Veteran players are always going to be on notice when a team is trying to rebuild for the future. Ian Stewart was acquired to be a piece to replace the departed Aramis Ramirez, who went to the Brewers as a free agent. Rumors are a part of the deal that comes with any kind of rebuilding process. Stewart had not had his best season in Colorado in 2011. Colvin had been counted on to take over in right field for the Cubs after a strong rookie campaign, in which he hit 20 home runs. The “change of scenery” swap had been rumored for quite a while before the trade actually happened. When I asked Ian on Twitter (@IAN_STEWART_2sc … great guy, very fan friendly, I highly recommend following him) what the rumors were like, he was candid, saying he “hated it.” And that he “love(ed) it there [in CO].” What it all boils down to is, it is difficult to understand what it is like to be traded or to be the subject of trade rumors because very few of us will ever be professional athletes.
The trade deadline and off-season “hot stove” bring a lot of excitement to media and to fans. There is another side of it, though. Players with families are forced to pick up and move on short notice. Focusing on Ian Stewart in this piece was easy. First, he’s accessible on twitter, in one of his late night Q&A sessions. Second, he is one of the younger parts brought in for the changing of the guard, and was subjected to rumors about being traded to the Cubs for quite a while before the trade actually happened.
For a team with less than stellar expectations, it is awfully difficult to grade the Cubs’ first half performance. If I were to judge by record alone, it would almost certainly be a D, or lower. However, since the Cubs weren’t expected to be very good this season as they rebuild and since the team hasn’t been as consistently bad as it appears, this grade is going to be issued on a curve. The criteria are offensive output, defensive output, improvement, consistency, and overall performance. Whether those criteria are fair or not is for you to decide…
Starting Pitching: B-
The starting pitching has actually been better than expected, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having strong seasons. Both pitchers have lived up to their billing as the top two starters in the rotation, and that has made them both viable candidates to be traded before the trade deadline three weeks from today. Jeff Samardzija has been up and down, having both very good and very bad outings in his first seasons as a starter. Paul Maholm has been in the same boat, being both good and bad in the first half of the season. Chris Volstad and Randy Wells have been atrocious and have earned their demotions to Iowa. Travis Wood, however, has been strong since his arrival, earning the fifth starting role. This grade would be much higher if not for Wells and Volstad’s inability to throw good strikes, and the overall team record would be likely to have followed suit.
This was going to be an F, until the recent surge of Carlos Marmol, with Shawn Camp and James Russell falling into more comfortable roles. The absolute incompetence of the bullpen to throw quality strikes and the number of walks has led to a huge number of blown saves, missed opportunities to win games, and crumbling in late situations has made this season one of the most dismal in the history of the organization. While all of the blame cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the bullpen, and the retirement of Kerry Wood was certainly unexpected, the bullpen has been a major contributor to the 33-52 record.
Position Play: C-
Ultimately, this grade is based much on injuries to all three of the top three catchers in the organization. It could have been far worse without the reacquisition of Koyie Hill, but the lack of offense out of the position is disappointing, since all three of the expected contributors at catcher for the major league team were injured and on the disabled list at one time. Throwing out base-stealers has also not been a strength, which makes it much more difficult on the pitchers, although those same pitchers have been partly to blame. Defensively, there have been some positives to keep an eye on as passed balls have been few and far between. Overall, however, the catchers have to give more at the plate, and must continue to improve on their first half performance.
First Base: B
We learned something about Bryan LaHair this spring. He can hit in the majors. And he was better than serviceable at first base. He went through a long drought, though, which prompted a long losing streak. It It is not fair to place all of the blame of Bryan’s shoulders, and that is why the position garners a B, overall. He was very good in his time there. Anthony Rizzo has been excellent in his 12 games at first base, and he could be a catalyst to see the end of season mark improve. He just has not been around long enough to cause great change in the grade. Jeff Baker has started more games at first than Rizzo, which is another reason this is only a B. Between LaHair and Baker, there has been absolutely no production against left handed pitching at this position, which doesn’t help the sorry record against left handed pitching, and that hurts the overall mark.
Second Base: B-
My man crush on Darwin Barney is based almost solely on his defense, which has been nothing short of outstanding. He is having a Gold Glove worthy season at second, with only two errors on the season thus far. Offensively, he has been Darwin Barney. He is a slap hitter that can find a gap, get a solid single, and he will do the right things on the bases. You know what to expect everyday from Darwin Barney, which is a good smart game that will not cost the team with mental errors and a full out physical effort.
Third Base: C
The hot corner has lost its pop with the departure of Aramis Ramirez. The addition of Ian Stewart was supposed to protect from a total collapse of that production, but a wrist injury which was operated on today ended his season without the production to ease the loss of Ramirez. Luis Valbuena gives very good at bats and hits the ball hard, but is not the defender that Stewart is. Both played very hard, but only Stewart excelled in any one area, and that was defensively. There has been too much inconsistency offensively to mark this position any higher than a C. At this point, there is uncertainty in that position because neither Stewart or Valbuena instill confidence at this point. Maybe Stewart will be able to regain his hitting stroke when he returns, likely next season, if at all. However, for the time being, the hot corner has been nothing more than luke warm.
Short Stop: B+
It probably isn’t fair to not give the only player to play in every game, starting all but one, less than an A when he was expected to carry this 2012 team and has done his best to do so. However, a slow start on defense, and a slump at the plate to end the first half bring Starlin Castro into the B+ range of the spectrum. 2012 has shown us nothing but more positive in the still only 22 year old Castro, who, while making mental errors common from only young players, has shown an ability to work hard and improve each day, both at the dish and in the field. His defense is much better under the guidance of Dale Sveum and since Rudy Jaramillo was replaced as the hitting coach, the walks have started to come a little less infrequently. Castro stands to get a 4.o GPA as a baseball player as he matures and reaches his prime. Now, however, he is “only” a B+…with a lot more improvement that can be made in his game.
Even though Alfonso Soriano has been on a tear since May 15, the rest of the outfield has been pretty quiet. It is very difficult to grade this group with the additions and subtractions of players all season. Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Marlon Byrd, Reed Johnson, Bryan LaHair, and Jeff Baker have all been in and out of the line up with Soriano and David DeJesus, which has hurt the consistent play of the group, and brought the grade down. The defense has been much less of an adventure out there, with Soriano showing major improvement at the behest of Dave McKay. The defense has been nothing better than average, though, and the offense has not been anything to perk up over. Soriano brings this group to above average with his offensive numbers over the last two months, but just barely.
Reed Johnson has been an excellent pinch hitter, leading the league in pinch hits over the first half of the season. It is not, however, a cure all for what has been a hit and miss bench. Tony Campana, Joe Mather, and Jeff Baker have all been up and down. This group does not provide any punch off the bench, which makes it very difficult to come back or extend leads late in games. What this group does bring, though, is defense. They are all average, or above average, defenders at multiple positions.
Managing/ Coaching: B
It has been a rough season, and much of the coaching is done behind the scenes. For a team that has been around 20 games under .500 since the end of May, though, to compete and hustle everyday is a sign of strong coaching and leadership from the guys that aren’t playing everyday. Dale Sveum has assembled a good staff of teachers that are not resting on the laurels of a lost season. That makes them a good staff. There have been growing pains that come with any new manager and coaching staff, though, and that keeps them from being excellent. The potential of this group is very high because they all appear to be good, knowledgeable baseball men. If they stay together, there could be some grade A work in their future.
Team Grade: D+
You can’t go on a 9-4 run to end the first half of the season to get to only 19 games under .500 and expect to be better than a D+. It just cannot happen. If there were any expectations for this team at all, the first half would have been a clear failure, but in their absence, this team gets the benefit of the doubt. There have been bright spots, without question, with two All-Stars, each elected by the players, for the first time since 2008. As players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija continue to grow, there is some reason for optimism, but at the moment, this is a team that is tough to watch day in and day out. The Cubs get a D+ so far in 2012, and if they finish with a mark that has fewer than three figures in the loss column, that grade probably rises to a C at season’s end.
June 20 Update: The team has announced Johnson’s signing, which makes the signing official. Physicals and other loose ends have been tied, and he is in the fold. Cubs.com blogger Carrie Muskat reported that the bonus is the maximum for the slot he was selected, $1.196M, as a compensation selection for the loss of 3B Aramis Ramirez.
June 11: 21 year old first round supplemental pick, RHP Pierce Johnson has signed with the Cubs, Johnson confirmed on Twitter this evening.
“Just signed with the Chicago Cubs! Thanks to God, family, teammates, coaches, and friends. If it wasn’t for you guys I wouldn’t be here!” – Johnson’s Twitter Page, @Flowbro34, said tonight
Pierce is the highest of the draft picks to sign thus far.
With the sixth pick in the 2012 MLB First Year Player draft, the Chicago Cubs selected OF Albert Almora. He is 6’2″, 175 from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, FL, and is an 18 year old University of Miami commit.
Almora was the ninth rated prospect by MLB.com, and is represented by Scott Boras. He has played with USA Baseball for six years, and the book on him is that he has tremendous leadership and maturity to go with the obvious physical talent that comes with being a top ten selection in the draft. Those physical tools have been labeled by many scouts as above average hitter at the major league level with the ability to hit to all fields, as well as good speed and base running ability. He is considered a plus defender, and has terrific range and arm strength. Additionally, he has been said to have great work ethic and make up. Overall, he is probably a “safe” pick, with good ability and tools, likely to sign, and very little downside.
This was Theo Epstein’s and Jed Hoyer’s first selection as heads of the baseball operations with the Cubs, so Almora will have the distinction of being the poster child of the new regime, for better or worse. They have both said on numerous occasions that they were looking to add impact players in the draft, and build the team from the bottom up. Tonight is the first step, and Almora represents that.
The Cubs will make the 43rd and 56th selections tonight, as compensation for departed 1B Carlos Pena and 3B Aramis Ramirez.
Some notes/ observations from the first week of the season…
The Cubs are much, much more aggressive than they have been in years past. We saw that with pinch runner Joe Mather running on contact with one out in the bottom of the ninth on Opening Day, and we have seen that in the stolen base attempts (6 through four games, 4 successful, all by Starlin Castro) and base running especially after the first four games. The aggressiveness is taking hold at the plate, too, with a lot of shallow counts to hitters. I understand seeing your pitch and swinging away, but at some point, the team is going to have to be more selective to increase the run production.
The starting pitching has been very good thus far, which, after a minutely small sample size is the reason the team has had a lead in each of the first four games. Last night’s five innings from Chris Volstad have to improve, but
to this point, there isn’t much to complain about with the starters. The only starter that didn’t get a fate he didn’t deserve was Sunday’s winning pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, who is continuing to tear through hitters as he did during Spring Training.
The bullpen is another story. Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol have each struggled…mightily. Shawn Camp had some problems last night, as well. Lendy Castillo is a Rule 5 pick, and is just getting his feet wet, but he’ll need to improve on a 2/3 IP outing to be an effective contributor to the ‘pen.
Aramis Ramirez heard some unnecessary boos last night when he took his first at bat. While I understand that he is a rival player now, it was a little much to hear any booing at all. I cannot be sure how he was received before the game when line-ups were announced, but I can only hope it was similar to the very warm reception that Mark DeRosa got when he was announced on Opening Day with the Washington Nationals.
More importantly than anything else, this team fights. They did not quit last night, down four, against a strong Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, and put together some good at bats before falling short. Ian Stewart’s triple with one out put the tying run at third base on Opening Day, which was wiped out by aggressive base running, but happened moments after falling behind in the ninth inning. The 2012 Chicago Cubs are going to struggle. They’re going to lose some games. Probably more than they manage to win. It will be a tribute to Dale Sveum if he is able to do what Mike Quade failed to do last season, and that is keep the team interested as the losses pile up. If he does that, the team will continue to improve. I am going to predict that Sveum has a better chance than his predecessor, as this is a young team with players trying to establish themselves in the majors, or trying to stay in the majors. There is, predictably, going to be more urgency with this year’s team than with a team full of established veterans with expiring contracts. Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and Kosuke Fukudome (before he was traded to Cleveland) were among the players that knew they would almost certainly not be back after 2011. This year, the roster has incentive to work hard all season, regardless of the team’s record…and that is to stay at the big league level, and hold off guys from Iowa.
4/10 Numbers:1-3, 6th in NL Central
BA Leader: Alfonso Soriano, .308
ERA Leader: Jeff Samardzija, 1.04
HR Leader: Darwin Barney (this will not last long); Bryan LaHair, 1
RBI Leader: Reed Johnson; Marlon Byrd; Alfonso Soriano, 2
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.