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.
“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.
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.
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?
With the news that the Cubs are now “Open For Business,” it is apparent that the “cold assessment” of where the Cubs are is complete, and the plug is being pulled. In reality, it isn’t any big secret that the Cubs were going to sell off pieces this summer, as the rebuild continues.
The timing couldn’t be better. While other teams are deciding whether or not to get into the market and start moving anything that isn’t bolted down, the Cubs should start making moves now. The reason is simple: they have a lot of pieces that can be had from other teams if and when they get into the fray.
Starting pitching is going to be heavily available this summer. The Phillies have denied that Cliff Lee is going to be available, but that is far from definite. The Phillies could cure a lot of ailments with that arm, and if they decide to move players, Lee is the biggest and best chip they have to push into the center of the table. His presence would put a major damper on the market for Matt Garza. If a team like the Giants or the Rangers is looking for an arm to push them back into the Fall Classic, Lee is going to be sought before Garza. He comes with more control and he’s a better pitcher. His price will be bigger, but his reward will match.
Trading Garza will also be met by the resistance of the potential for the Brewers to put Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse on the market, the Blue Jays to seek to move Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, or the White Sox trying to trade Jake Peavy. All would be nice acquisitions that could be thrown into the middle of someone’s rotation for a run to October. At this early stage, it would appear to be a buyers’ market for mid-rotation starting pitching as the deadline draws closer.
The same can be said about a player like Scott Feldman, who can start at the back of a rotation until the playoffs and become a contributor out of the bullpen in October. The Twins can move Kevin Correia, the Marlins will likely move Ricky Nolasco, and the Astros are going to try to unload Bud Norris, so the market for a piece to add to the back of a rotation could also get to be a little crowded.
Yet another problem the Cubs face is the marked improvement of their farm system. The Cubs are not in a position where they have to take on as much talent as they can get because the system is so depleted that it needs as many good bodies as it can take on. The major area of weakness for the Cubs is in the pitching department. The front office acknowledged that the pitching is going to come from international signings and from the trade deadline. The problem with that strategy is simple: the teams who are going to look at adding pieces aren’t rich in pitching prospects. The Giants and Rangers don’t have a lot of pitching depth in their systems. Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn are the Giants’ top two prospects, and both are in the bottom quarter of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects this season.
What has been said repeatedly still holds true. If the Cubs can find a team who needs multiple pieces that the Cubs can provide, they have their best opportunity to maximize their return. What has not been said, though, is that the Cubs face a lot of competition for the players they have to offer, especially the pitching. It would be doubtful to see the extensive sell-off this season for that reason. There will be more teams offering similar pieces, and the other teams offering their veteran players need a lot more for their depleted farm systems, which make it much easier to make a deal.
Alright, they didn’t say exactly that, but they did say he has “regressed.” On ESPN 1000’s “Waddle and Silvy”, Theo said (via Doug Padilla from ESPNChicago.com),
“Failure is innate in baseball; it’s inevitable. It’s actually an important part in the development of the development process. Starlin is someone who went very quickly through the upper minor leagues. If you look at the number of at-bats he had at the Double-A and Triple-A level, there are not very many and he was in the big leagues instantly and had success.”
Actually, Starlin Castro didn’t have any at-bats at Iowa because he was called up from the Smokies in 2010, skipping right over Triple A. Theo also talked about the value of such a slump.
“Because he never failed, he never had to make adjustments as an offensive player and he’s going through that now; he’s struggling. He’s well below the high standards he has set for himself. That means it’s failure, it’s a slump and it’s incumbent on him to work his way out of it and for us to help put him in a position where he can get out of it and I think that he will, and he will be a better player in the long run because of it.”
Dale Sveum was asked about Theo’s comments and agreed with the assessment. From Paul Sullivan in the Chicago Tribune…
“By numbers alone he’s regressed, there’s no question about it. He’s getting way, way down as far as all the other shortstops in baseball right now, as far as the offensive part. He’s under a .600 OPS. So that would go without saying that he’s regressed.”
While neither talked glowingly about Castro’s present, they didn’t say anything that should worry anyone about his future. The major takeaway is that Starlin is struggling and in the long run, he should be better for it.
The current ramifications of his struggles are tied to the team’s success. Since Starlin Castro is such an integral part of the offense, no matter where he hits in the line-up, his success or failure is going to be directly tied to the team’s success or failure, and it will remain that way for at least the next year. In some ways, it would seem that the Cubs’ early failures offensively can be tied to Castro’s struggles and at the same time his struggles can be tied to the early offensive failures. He isn’t hitting well, so the offense looks weak, but because the offense is weak and Starlin knows his value in the line-up every day, he pushes himself harder to perform and doesn’t stay within himself to perform at the level he is accustomed to.
At this point, Starlin Castro is the least of the Cubs’ problems. There is no reason to think he won’t be the hitter he is capable of. Even if he stays at a .290/.340/.430 level for the rest of his career, which is on par with the numbers he put up through his first three seasons, he’ll be one of the most productive short stops in the game and be a bargain at the contract extension he signed last season. Eventually, he’ll come out of the slump. Hopefully, it’ll happen soon. The Astros are in this weekend and the Cubs are in Milwaukee next week…and those are some slump busting pitching staffs.
In 2011, the Cubs and Cardinals shared something in common. Both dreamed of 2012 with Albert Pujols in the line-up. Jerseys,
shirsies, and Cubs’ gear with the signature 5 on the back started appearing. And then Jim Hendry gave him a hug. And we all leaned forward. And then Hendry got fired and Theo Epstein got the job to lead the front office after spending mega-dollars in Boston. We all thought it was a sure thing that the Cubs would sign Pujols or former Brewer, Prince Fielder. And then the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo. And the dreaming was over.
The start of a rebuild was upon us. None of us thought it was 101 losses bad. We didn’t think we would be waiting until 2015 to be realistic contenders. That is, however, where we are. And it is exactly where we should be.
My favorite conversations are with the people who talk about “winning now.” We should buy free agents to win now while prospects develop so that we have a good major league product while we develop a minor league product. The reality, though, is that logic is flawed. Because the evidence suggests that it fails just about 100% of the time.
The New York Yankees are the poster-children for throwing money at flaws. In fact, the Yankees have spent, since 2001, roughly $2.375 BILLION on payroll. They have appeared in the World Series only three times (2001, 2003, and 2009), and have only won once (2009). They spent about $792 million per World Series appearance. Meanwhile, the Cubs have spent about $1.294 billion on payroll for three PLAYOFF appearances, and no World Series berths in the same time frame. Every year, the Cubs are in the top half (even now) in total payroll and have had among the highest in the National League over the last 13 years.
The teams who are winning are those who draft their players, develop them, bring them up, and learn to win at the MLB level. There is a reason the Rays are one of the most stable franchises in baseball now, in spite of having to let players like Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and likely soon will let David Price walk out the door. They do their work on the draft and turn their talent into contending quality major league teams. The Giants have done the same thing with home grown Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Buster Posey, et al winning two of the last three championships. The Cardinals refused to pay Albert Pujols more than he was worth. They set a number and a length for him, and refused to budge. He went to the Angels, and his legs stayed in St. Louis. Meanwhile, he has eight years left on his contract. He’ll be a player who can’t run, can’t be traded, and has to be paid until 2021. Sound familiar? A certain left fielder has drawn the ire of Cubs fans for failing to live up to his deal, and Pujols has an even worse contract.
Like it did with the Rays, the Phillies when they won with a core of Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins (all home grown), and the Giants, it will take time for the Cubs to roll the snowball of building talent into a top down organizational juggernaut like the current Cardinals (who have the best record in baseball and one of the best farm systems to pair with it), but it is the right direction.
In the coming free agent class, there are no game changers to make the Cubs instant contenders. That is just another flaw in a completely unsustainable plan. Robinson Cano is the only potential free agent who could make an impact on a line up, and it is highly unlikely that he leaves New York. Shin Soo Choo is a nice piece, but he isn’t pushing the Cubs into the category of making a deep October run. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player who may finally be healthy, but he is nearing the wrong side of 30, and has an injury history that makes him a salary liability. And if/ when the Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson, Kris Bryant group gets to Chicago, they have an old player with a big contract blocking them. The pitching isn’t much better in the coming off-season. The most accomplished free agent pitcher to be is already on the Cubs’ roster in Matt Garza.
Losing games isn’t any fun. It’s easy to understand the frustration of watching the team lose games they could win, sink to the bottom of the division in May, and sell off veteran pieces for players who may turn into nothing. But throwing money at free agents and trading every nice piece in the farm for a chance at one year is how the Cubs got to this point in the first place. They are much better served developing their players, bringing them to the big league level, and trading prospects only when the return is a player who can be useful for sustained success. Money is best spent in the manner the front office has shown that it is going to spend it…on its own core pieces. Keeping young talent in-house for mutually beneficial deals is a very good way to spend money, and the Cubs’ position as a big market team should be able to allow them to hang on to their players, and not have to purge them when they have out-performed their contracts.
An unfortunate side effect to doing it the right way is that it takes time. And it will. Anything worth doing, though, is worth doing right. Doing it right takes time, and good things come to those who wait, and all those other things we were told when we were kids. They’re all true.
There have been times where this season’s Cubs have looked respectable. There have been times, especially against the White Sox, where this team looked downright good. None of those times have come against the division. In a season where there was some optimism from the team about being a sleeper to compete, and the fans expected a step forward, the early results against the division have been anything but promising.
Against all teams not in the NL Central, the Cubs have been interesting. Their 18-17 record against non-divisional opponents reeks of respectability. The offense and pitching come together and play solid baseball. The 7-21 mark against the division is where the disconnect lies. They have only won one series in the division, the first series of the year at Pittsburgh. They have not won a single series against the division at home. And the only team they don’t have a losing record against in the division is St. Louis, who they’ve split two games with. The Cubs haven’t won a home game against the Reds all season, and today stretched that mark to 12 straight losses, which is the most an opponent has won at Wrigley consecutively since the 1956-57 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
Why the terrible performances against the division? The bullpen is a culprit, because they have blown some leads against division teams in the same ways they’ve blown some against non-division teams. The biggest contributor to the problems has been the offense, though. The Cubs cannot find any way at all to push runs across the plate against the division. Only three times have they managed five or more runs in a single game, where their record is 2-1. The Cubs have been shutout four times this season, all coming against the division. They have scored two of fewer runs against the division 12 times, with a record of 1-11, including the four shutout losses.
One of the most common ailments that gets talked about with the Cubs is the inability to beat left handed starters. The Cubs have had 22 such games this season. They are, again, respectable against lefties outside of the division, with a solid 7-7 mark for this team. The 2-6 mark against the division is where the struggles have been concentrated. And it is not a situation where they’re losing to pitchers they’ve never seen. The Cubs have seen a lot of Wandy Rodriguez over the years with the Astros, and now the Pirates. Francisco Liriano has looked like Sandy Koufax in his starts against the Cubs this year…and he’s a guy with a career ERA of over four.
To me, the answer is simple. There is no organizational urgency to perform against the division. When you see four teams 19 times each, those games matter more because those games comprise just about half of the schedule. At the current rate, the Cubs are staring a 19-57 divisional record in the face. A .250 winning percentage against the division is pathetic by any standard. While the pace of this season is not quite at 100 losses, it’s damn close, and the division is the reason why.
Many fans unfairly criticize the manager, Dale Sveum. If there is one place where he deserves some criticism, it is in this case. Yes, it is up to the players to perform, but the manager must prepare the team, and this team is obviously in way over their heads against division foes. And it isn’t like Dale isn’t familiar with the other teams in the division. He was with the Brewers before coming to Chicago. And coaches Jamie Quirk, Chris Bosio, and Dave McKay have all been in the division, too. There is familiarity with the opponents. So even though the team may have a lot of young and new pieces without that experience against the common opponents, the coaches should all have full books on each and every one of the four division rivals.
I can’t believe, in spite of everything I’ve seen, that the Cubs will finish 19-57 against the division. It can’t be that bad. Even though all of the pronounced losing streaks through have been at the hands of the division, including a current 1-5 home stand against the Pirates and Reds, there has to be some positive regression. There are 48 divisional match-ups remaining. The hope should be a clean split, which would be consistent with the way they’ve played everyone else. Unfortunately, with the loss of the Astros to the AL West and the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates all playing well, that could be just a touch optimistic.
And in no way should hoping for a 31-45 record for any 76 game block be what we have to hope for.
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.
Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as they seem.
The 2013 Cubs are a pretty good example of that. They’ve had no offense to speak of. The back end of the bullpen was an unmitigated disaster for the first two weeks. The defense let the Cubs down on a number of occasions; yet the Cubs are 10-15, and have won five out of seven.
Record wise, the team isn’t far off of expectations. We knew this team was not going to compete with the Reds and Cardinals this season. We knew the offense was going to struggle at times. And we knew the early season was going to be a strong test because of the good teams the Cubs were going to play. The results of the test are in, and the Cubs passed. They may have only passed with a 65, but they passed. And they missed a lot of opportunities to really improve on that grade.
It isn’t all that difficult to understand why we, as fans, are so disappointed, though. The interaction in Twitter is a good indication of what most of us are feeling. It could be so much better. The Cubs played well enough to win three of the games with the Giants. They shouldn’t have been swept by the Braves. Or the Brewers in Miller Park. They’ve shot themselves in the foot more times that we should have expected, especially after the steps forward in fundamental baseball that the team took last season.
That’s what young teams do. I’ve said this a number of times to folks on Twitter. Winning is a learned behavior. There aren’t many players on this team who have a lot of experience with winning. There’s Alfonso Soriano from his days with the Yankees and first couple of years with the Cubs. Nate Schierholtz was with the Giants when they won the World Series in 2010. Scott Feldman was with the Rangers the last couple of years. Carlos Villanueva went to the playoffs with the Brewers in 2008. Edwin Jackson’s been on his share of winners. So, two position players, who play on a regular basis, and three starting pitchers. That’s not a whole lot.
Here’s my point. There is a time coming for winning. It’s not here, yet, but it’s coming. Teams like the Braves, Rangers, Brewers and Giants all know how to finish games at this point. There are veteran players on those teams who have tasted success at the major league level. They know how to take advantage of young, impressionable teams like the Cubs. And they take those advantages. In the end, the fans feel violated. But the team grows up, figures out how to avoid the killer mistake, and hangs on.
Nights like last night, where the bullpen is good and the defense makes some plays to hold on to the game, become more prevalent when a team is good. The value of last night’s game is huge. Because unlike the standard for the early season, the Cubs found a way to win. It was only 1/162 of the season, but that was the most valuable win of the season, thus far. This time, when the Cubs closed the door, they kept it closed. And that is a big step in the right direction.
We can’t hang onto games past. First, because our hearts can’t take the stress. But mostly, because with this team in its current form, everything is a day to day process. After every game, lets move on to the next one. That’s the great thing about baseball. All summer long, there’s always tomorrow to try again, regardless of today’s result.
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.
For a day without a game, there sure is a lot of drama surrounding the Cubs today…
- For starters, David Kaplan has an interview posted on CSN with Theo Epstein that will air tonight at 10 PM. For those that don’t live in Chicago or don’t get CSN or don’t want to click the link, the short of it is: they’re sticking to the plan. Bleacher Nation has a number of great quotes posted from the interview if you want a little more depth. My two cents remain the same. This is the right way to do it. In an era with free agency yielding weaker classes, draft slotting, international spending limits, etc, it’s going to be tougher to get good overnight, so trading veterans when the team is out of it, developing a stockpile of talent, and making them a cohesive team that grows together and learns to win together is the best way to be a contender for a long time. There was some great action on Twitter and the linked BN post’s comment section from people who want the checkbook to flop open, but none of it is realistic. The good news is that as this season wears on, we should see improvement, and going into next season, the team could play winning baseball. I’ve said before that last season was as much fun watching the Cubs as I’ve had since 2008…because we could see players get better and what was building. The last two months were brutal by design. The long term value of getting Jackson, Vitters, Rusin, and the
other youngsters up was off the charts, though.
- I Tweeted a few moments ago that I hope the goat’s head that was sent to Wrigley today was actually allowed in the park. It would be silly to renew the curse on a rain day.
- Patrick Mooney and Bruce Levine both have posts about Starlin Castro out today. I keep saying when that kid grows up, he’s going to be really good at baseball. It’s still true. The best part of both stories is that it seems like Castro himself wants to meet his off the charts potential. There is no debate about how good he can be. For those who forget, he’s 23. He is a week YOUNGER than Jean Segura, who was in town with the Brewers this week, and Segura didn’t make his way to the majors until the Brewers got him in the Zack Greinke deal and they were basically giving up on the season. Castro, in his fourth season, is a legitimate 20/20 threat with great range (ask Carlos Marmol about this), and want to. Not a bad deal.
- Hooray for not having a deal! Sort of. Lots of sources for the information from last night’s meeting about the renovation that was closed to media, but Bleed Cubbie Blue does the math for the alderman. I’ve said all along that the Cubs should explore the suburbs. A number of different stories have said Tom Ricketts’ siblings agree. I think if the city had a credible reason to believe the Cubs would pack their balls and bats and go to Rosemont, they’d be a lot more willing to cough up some night games. It’s good to know the Cubs and the city have some agreement on 40 games and four concerts. I’m with the crowd that says the Cubs should get the six flexible dates for TV on top of the 44 night events that have been agreed to. Mostly because the Cubs are willing to pay for all of this themselves. At some point, the neighbors need to suck it up and know who butters their bread…and it’s not the alderman or the mayor, in spite of what those individuals think.
- Last night, I had a tweet (among the others with his truly not good stats) that I think David DeJesus saw, “.
@David_DeJesus3 needs to go. Bottom of the order. Bench. Somewhere. He’s awful. #Cubs“ After that point, he went 3-3, which caused me to say, “Remember all that stuff I said about @David_DeJesus3 earlier tonight? David, I’m so, so, so sorry. Seriously. My bad. Do you need a maid?” While I am not easily swayed, DDJ was terrific last night in the clutch. And I’m sorry I doubted him. Until the next time I do it.
The Giants are in tomorrow afternoon to start a four game series after smacking the Rockies around a little bit. Let’s hope they got all that hitting out of their system and Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner miss the plane to Chicago and can’t get flights to anywhere but Milwaukee (which is where they play starting on Monday). Hopefully, the Cubs can manage to win their now nine game homestand, but that won’t be easy with the Rangers following the Giants.